Tuesday, November 29, 2005

On Advent and Vancouver's first snow

This shot was taken in August, during a backpacking trip in the Skoki Valley with Adam. I've posted it here to commemorate snowy days long past for me now, here in temperate Vancouver. It is strange how the last time I saw real snow was in August. Really though, snow is a gift. (This goes out to all you Winnipeggers, slipping and sliding on the stuff, cursing your way over icy sidewalks or into frozen keyholes.) Snow is the cheeriest member of the precipitation family. Rain--the melancholic teenager, sleet--the attention starved sibling. Snow is slow and unassuming. I love those fat and healthy flakes, floating towards my tongue under the glow of street lights suddenly made magical. One of snow's best voices is in its delightful squeak, underneath your sled, your tire, your heel. I will miss the presence of snow this winter, even though Winnipeg will grant me a few days' jaunt in my winter play clothes. Still, a mere flirtation with winter will be a pronounced change from a former long-term relationship. Today it snowed in Vancouver. Coincidentally, I also sipped my first eggnog latte, at Starbucks (cringe), where I probably paid as much for one steaming mug of nostalgia as a whole carton would've cost me. (While fighting off a sinking sensation of guilt at my pre "Nog's Eve" indulgence!) In my analysis, this pathetic version of Snow does not really deserve its namesake, for it didn't even care to stick around long enough to even be heralded as such. Nope, off it went, melting into the (still green) grass, the pavement, our jackets, anywhere that would conceal its true identity. Cowardly stuff. Snow can't handle this city, and this city can't handle snow. Nevertheless, it provided a nice dose of Christmasy coziness for me, now that November's embers are cooling into winter's bleakness. First Advent is passed and we are summoned to a time of Waiting, Expectancy, Hope. I have been recently invited to think of the bodily posture of expectancy, and to translate it to my spirit, as I wait for the Kingdom of Heaven to be founded upon this earth. What does that actually mean? I look at the people around me at the bus stops I've been frequenting since my beloved bike (#2) was snatched from my embrace last week. Eyebrows raised, body leaned forward, gaze looking out and over the distant horizon. What would it mean to live through the Advent season in this manner, with this kind of expectancy, as we beckon "Come, Lord Jesus, Come."

Friday, November 11, 2005

Taking a day to remember

So, it's Remembrance Day. I think that is probably the most beautiful-sounding holiday out there, just rolling off the tongue. That this day has been designated for remembering is something I am grateful for, but this year I notice that it too is becoming stained by commerce and the drive to consume. Even our most solemn holidays are being shaped by the impulse to keep moving. To keep busy. To get things done. What am I supposed to do, stay home and make soup? Knit? Think about war or some other depressing event?

I am a case in point. I went out for brunch this morning with friends, as if it were any other long weekend. Mind you, I did expect the city to be shut down, so out I went, tesing it: If I will go, will they open for me? Of course. Take my money. This is business.

Yesterday at work a few of us talked about how we'd spent various recent November Elevenths. To my chagrin, I couldn't remember. When I was young we'd have assemblies and afternoons off. We'd spend the week previous writing awkward poems in hopes of being picked to read aloud in the echoing gymnasium--smelling of rubber and basketballs and play. Every year the same man would come in and play the same haunting song on the trumpet. The one with that part that makes every elementary child's heart leap up for the first time in some sort of empty patriotic impulse. The song that was perhaps for us then the first strains of a pride larger than egoism. A glory bigger than the self. The halls leading us towards the gym would of course be decorated with little squares of red tissue paper that had been meticulously ruffled around the index finger and glued to a Flander's Field of felt. The year I remember most clearly is the one where I sang John Lennon's "Imagine" with my friend Maria; we were the soundtrack to a visually accosting slide show of images from the second world war. Our backs were turned. Everybody else had to watch and all we had to do was sing. I think even in the cold sweat of stage fright, we had the easier time.

Past those ritual assemblies of youth I don't remember most of my Rememberance Days. For most of us now they mean a day off, or at least time and a half. I don't doubt that this morning many ate their eggs benedict and sipped their americanos with a heightened sense of respect and a bright poppy on their lapel. I just marvel at how we so casually go about our normal outings, demanding that retail cater to our material hunger. As we waited for a table one of my brunch partners mused at what we weren't remembering--civil wars in his dual homelands Columbia and Egypt, all the wars ending and beginning, the war in the East. Later I stopped and looked around at the turtlenecks, the shoes, the espresso beans glimmering behind the bar. I thought of all the blood that had been shed for these things we indulged in so unthinkinglyon this Friday in November. I gave it only a moment, and then turned back to my breakfast. A sense of social justice is so seldomly translated into action.

On the bus on the way home a large man came and stood right in front of me. Maybe my "Peace" pin had set him off, or maybe he had some kind of prophetic message for us, his captive cargo. "I am the first-born son of a liberal-voting...went to a pentecostal church after I left Catholicism...I am grateful for the united states' effort to save the world...after 6 years of living in assonance..." all these unfinished, mumbled sentences. When the bus stopped he barrelled through the crowd, raising his voice, "OK folks we're going to get to that door, let's MOVE, I'm needing to get to that door now..." and then he was gone. The young man standing across from me smiled and said "that guy is on something." As I looked down at my poppy, and the guilty-looking pin on my bag, I wondered what war had been raged around him, with him, in him.

It's Rememberance Day and there's much to forget, much to remember, and much to take notice of in the people and things around us every day. This day is an ode to memory and to indifference. To battles unneccessary and un-fought. To pain we don't understand and to wounds we do not see.

In Dachau Concentration Camp, an iron gate remains. The German words for "Work Makes One Free" are set into its clasp. The picture at the top of this post is the International Monument that stands at the entrance to the site's Museum. I wonder what it is that truly makes us free, ignorance or memory.

"Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away." Amos 6:4-7.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

As voices having aged grow stale

Our lives tend to turn and turn about like the arms of a great mill in a steady wind. When a decision comes, it is like a squall or an abrupt calm interrupting life's mechanism, changing its intensity and altering its movement. The time for action, whether to take sides or choose a particular course, comprises some of the most intense moments of our existence. Our emotions and our rational powers come together to joust--to test the other's weakness, and to weild their best weaponry. Our desires balance upon the narrow beam of others' expectations, and our best reasoning is toppled by our wildest dreams. Voices that were once clear become parched with time's gravel. The fresh fruit of revelation grows pocked and brown, the sweet scent of promise fades to a stale unknowing. When decisions loom, the everyday is transformed. We are catapulted to loftier heights where every thought and word is heavy with significance. On this altar of deliberation, where we are fated to the sacrifice of one of our loves, we are prone to a unique sort of spiritual lonliness.

In the pull of the options and opposites that make up choices, I am prone to feeling strangely alone. Not the kind of alone, however, that is the result of abandonment or neglect, but rather like a pillar of plaster as the mold is peeled away. Decisions render me exposed, stark and solitary. In the seasons of choice this pillar reminds me of my stature--secured to the ground beneath me that is trust, faith, and knowing. All around me there is the no-thing space that gobbles up our failure, like a ravenous dark chasm. But when I look down, when I wiggle my toes, there is that very-thing which enables me to exist at all, and it seems silly to ask this ground of being for anything more. And that is why these images bring a particular kind of alienation. And that is why I feel so full of glory--even tottering as I do in the open air, vulnerable and breakable--because I have been given this body and this life.

But it is not entirely this way. Our existential lonliness is countered by the sages, seers, friends and lovers who journey with us. Some join hands with us momentarily, others for a lifetime. Counsel of all sorts takes shape in soft voices, sharp-edged epiphanies, and the rare neutral settling of inner peace effected by a word. When I stumble into a season of decision, I stretch myself out, like tentacles grasping for wisdom and insight. I become fragmented into little pieces, scuttling about for some wayward shard of sense. I comb through the debris and the treasure of other people's knowledge. I grow weary, and want to be whole again. I begin to stumble and to lose my sight, and I want to be strong and secure again. As the chorus of voices recedes to a hum, only one voice remains--my own.

When it comes to making decisions, being a cynic by nature and dreamer at heart make for a frustrating hybridity. I lean one way one day and the other the next, one reason to stay is countered by one thousand to leave, and back and forth they play. In the heavens where my God resides and which are all around me there is a great mind and a great heart that knows what I will choose. It would be much easier to be let in on this future, but it is not my own to know. It is much more difficult to travel in this cloud of unknowing that is faith, to stumble half-blind and only half-enlightened by what we have come to know so far. I may shake my fist at this power, or beg it humbly to speak, but perhaps to let it be still and work instead inside of me--my desires, my dreams, and my reasoning--is the only real choice I face, and the wisest choice of all.

And if a prayer is just a musing directed towards something bigger than we are, then we ask for these things: For self-discipline, refreshment, and in emptiness the fullness of the kingdom. For the courage to live openly, and to embark creatively rather than nailing down who we are, and what our lives are, into a small, suffocating box of a strategy. To see life less as a business plan and more as a succession of moments. A moment followed by a moment followed by a moment. And then a memoir. And then at the end of time, like a long and weary day, a wonder-filled telling of all the stories that we've lived by. Amen.